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Lebanese Fear Collateral Damage From Syrian Crisis

The unrest in neighboring Syria has the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on edge. Thousands of refugees have poured over the border, the demand for weapons is skyrocketing, and the pro-Syrian Alawite minority is warning of chaos if Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime falls.

Smoke billows from the Jabal Mohsen community while a Sunni gunman takes cover behind a wall in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood during clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon, on July 9, 2008.
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Above: Smoke billows from the Jabal Mohsen community while a Sunni gunman takes cover behind a wall in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood during clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon, on July 9, 2008.

Though Hezbollah is the best known of the pro-Syrian actors in Lebanon, residents in Tripoli are more worried about the Alawites, members of the same minority that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Their numbers may be small, but they are well-armed and fiercely loyal to Damascus.

The Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen stands on the hill above Bab al-Tabbaneh, a poor Sunni neighborhood in Tripoli. Three years ago, it was the scene of intense armed clashes that left dozens dead and hundreds of families displaced. Nobody here wants to see that repeated.

So far that kind of sectarian violence has not returned. But as a coffee seller's clinking cups echo through a deserted market, the economic damage is apparent. Residents say the only ones making money these days are the arms dealers.

Religious Minorities

In keeping with Lebanon's reputation as a haven for religious minorities — provided they're willing to fight for their own survival — the Alawites of Lebanon are at once a feared armed group and a threatened religious minority.

Rifaat Eid, who heads the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, agrees with Syria's argument that chaos will erupt across the region if Assad's regime is threatened.

"If anything happens in Syria, all the Middle East will be divided," he says. "The serious danger in this is that all the minorities will end in the Middle East, especially the Christians, OK? And I will tell you, as minorities the Jewish will — can't — afford to stay in the Middle East."

Eid proudly recounts how former Syrian leader Hafez Assad rescued the Alawites during Lebanon's civil war. He says Syria trained, armed and funded the Lebanese Alawites, whose most recent battles have been against hard-line Sunni Salafists that he says are backed by Saudi Arabia. That's one reason the price of a Kalashnikov is so high these days, he says.

"We are seeing it now in Egypt. Who's gathering all the power? The Salafists!" he says. "The gun, the [Kalashnikov] gun, it's $300-$400. Now it's $2,000, and no one can get one."

Sunni leaders see the situation differently. Lawmaker Khaled Daher says the catastrophic warnings from Syria and its supporters are simply a tired replay from the Arab dictator's playbook: Back me or face chaos.

"The Syrians are very good at putting fear into people," he says. "I mean, their problem is with their people. They want rights, democracy; this is what they should be working on, their problems with their people. Instead, what are they doing? From the beginning, you know, the Syrians have tried to move the focus from their problem to others."

Tangled Allegiances

If Syria wants to destabilize Lebanon, analysts say, it won't take much in a country that always seems to be on the brink of collapse.

While demonstrations have been staged in capitals around the world opposing the Syrian regime's crackdown against its citizens, in Beirut recently it was a pro-Assad demonstration that snarled traffic.

Beirut political analyst Oussama Safa says it took decades to build the tangled allegiances that make up Lebanon's modern ties to Syria, and even those who loathe those connections are fearful about what might happen if they're suddenly severed.

"The political system, the electoral law, are all put together basically to keep a certain elite in power that is very close to the Syrians," he says. "So all of this would probably all of a sudden be gone if the regime in Syria is no longer able to call the shots. And I think this might throw Lebanon into a lot of uncertainty."

Many Lebanese are convinced Assad isn't going anywhere soon. Retired Lebanese army general and analyst Elias Hanna says since 1970, Assad's father, Hafez, cultivated a system of control in which Alawite loyalists occupy the key military, intelligence and political positions.

But by the same token, says Hanna, if this popular protest can sustain itself, Assad's options will be limited.

"In Syria there is one dimension: the army, security, and the party, and the political level are one. Zero-sum game," he says. "So that's why you have a dilemma today in Syria: If the president opens up too much he loses, and if he closes too much he loses."

As the world watches how President Assad responds to the biggest threat yet to his regime, no one is watching more closely than Lebanon.

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